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  Field Notes From
Indonesia: Living Dangerously

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From Author

Tracy Dahlby

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From Photographer

Alexandra Boulat

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Norman Wibowo (top) and Alexandra Boulat

image: compass
In Far-flung Indonesia

Field Notes From Author
Tracy Dahlby
Arriving at the Banda Islands—an Indonesian paradise—was like a scene from a Joseph Conrad novel, a surprising observation since the Bandas, like other places in the nation, had been wracked by communal violence. The ship sailed through a narrow channel flanked on one side by a towering volcano and on the other by a hummocky islet teeming with tropical foliage. The sky was blue. And the sea was bluer as the boat entered the natural harbor.
A few days later I sat near a banyan tree in the courtyard of my Dutch-style hotel, drinking Indonesian coffee and watching the ship cruise into the dock on its return voyage. The Muslim afternoon prayer blared out over the loudspeakers. The earthy, arabesque sounds of pop music called dangdut emptied out the people below decks. Then it hit me. There was a texture to the moment that was magical: The volcano, the sky, the sea, the ship, Muslim prayer, dangdut, people unloading with boom boxes, baskets, and chickens. It was a convergence of things Indonesian. And there was something in that convergence that made me put my coffee cup down and realize that this was why I had traveled so far.
Despite Indonesia’s civil unrest, the biggest danger to my guide, Norman Wibowo, and me was our hotel driver in Banda Aceh. The young, frail-looking man met us at the airport. When we loaded everything into the van and turned onto the highway, I knew we were going to have problems.
He was visibly nervous behind the wheel. He kept changing lanes and almost whacked a few cars. At one point Norman yelled, “Whoa!” I looked up as a cow crossed the highway right in front of us. But instead of slowing down, the guy sped up! We came within what seemed like a split millimeter of crashing into the cow and turning us all into hamburger.
The driver was still a basket of nerves as he drove us to our first appointment and nearly backed into a vanload of very angry young men. In that kind of situation you don’t know who belongs to what faction. There was a moment when things could have gotten out of hand. Finally, after saying a few choice words to the driver, the men moved on.
I never did find out what the guy’s story was. Given the unhappy time and place, it was one human-interest story I wasn’t interested in.
I stayed in a stylish hotel in the Balinese hill town of Ubud. Even though my room included an outdoor toilet and bathtub and an open-air—but discreetly walled—shower, it was furnished exquisitely in traditional Balinese with lots of wood, textured paper, and subdued lighting. Although perfect for a honeymoon, the room was less ideal for a middle-age traveler with challenged vision trying to make notes at night.
Unable to work one evening, I decided to shower and go to bed. But when I opened the door to the outdoor facilities, there between the shower and the grotto that contained my bathtub was an enormous green lizard. In imagination, it seemed like a brontosaurus. But in truth it was about a foot long.
I tried to think of eco-friendly tactics to make it go away. I stamped my feet. I slammed the door a couple of times. I even resorted to singing. It didn’t budge. So after deciding that it didn’t look as if it would attack me, I ended up cohabiting with this big lizard, who just sat there and watched me bathe until it got bored and took off into the shadows.

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